SHOOTOUT: Realtors court home buyers online

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Moving across the country has always been hard, but the Internet is making it a little easier.

Using Web sites operated by Coldwell Banker and Re/Max, it is possible to locate intriguing homes before visiting a city for the first time. You can specify the criteria your new home must meet and generate a list of matching properties, along with photographs and neighborhood information.

For this month's Marketing Shoot-out, we asked 81 WebScore panelists to imagine they were moving across the country to Phoenix. They were told to visit both Web sites and search for a single-family house with at least three bedrooms and two baths for $200,000 to $300,000.

Easier search engine scores big

By a large margin (56-25), respondents said Coldwell Banker's search feature beats the search at the Re/Max site. A similar total (58-22, with one abstention) said Coldwell Banker's search is easier to use.

Other results were more mixed. When asked which site offers more tools and resources for the home buyer, 45 panelists voted for Coldwell Banker, 35 thought Re/Max's site is superior and one person could not decide.

We also asked which site provides more information about each home. Here, opinions were virtually split down the middle -- 41-40 in favor of Coldwell Banker.

It is clear that ease of use was the key reason our panelists preferred Coldwell Banker's search feature overall. Twenty-six people, or 32% of the total, said they favored Coldwell Banker's search feature because they found it to be self-explanatory.

As one wrote: "I have never used the Web to look for a home before, so this type of site was new to me. I had no problem quickly getting into the property listings for Arizona."

What factors led our panelists to perceive that the Coldwell Banker search is easier to use? For one thing, the site uses a mostly graphical navigation system.

One person appreciated the fact that there is "less language and more visuals to direct the user," while another said "it was so much easier to use; you just point and click."

In contrast, respondents had trouble deciphering the instructions for Re/Max's search feature. Wrote one panelist: "Re/Max had way too much verbiage explaining all their different choices of searches. ... All of these instructions [were] also in paragraph form, making [them] difficult to read."

Speed is everything

Another key feature was the speed with which panelists could search on Coldwell Banker's site. Eleven people mentioned that it took them significantly fewer steps to locate homes with Coldwell Banker than with Re/Max.

In addition, a few participants expressed frustration that the Re/Max site has two search engines called "CyberHomes" and "Re/-Max on HomeWeb."

They observed that the site offers no explanation about which search to use first, or about how the two differ.

Other panelists, while they did not complain about Re/Max's two search engines, indicated by their comments that they only had enough patience to try one of the two.

Since the two searches returned different lists of properties, this affected perceptions of Re/Max's selection. Those who tried only "Re/Max on HomeWeb" were particularly misled, since that search offered only a few Phoenix homes that met all of the criteria.

Room for improvement

It is clear, therefore, that Re/Max's site design discourages users in two ways -- by forcing people to search twice and by encouraging the perception that the company does not list as many homes as it actually does.

However, a minority of participants preferred to search on the Re/Max site. Most commonly, they were impressed by the number of criteria available on the "CyberHomes" search engine.

Coldwell gets the win

While Re/Max may have a more powerful search tool, a clear majority of the panelists were willing to sacrifice that power in favor of Coldwell Banker's speed and ease of use.

"I do most of my Web surfing during my spare time at work," wrote one. "I like to be able to find what I'm looking for and get back to work."

This attitude may explain why 46 of our 81 panelists, or 57%, said that Coldwell Banker -- not Re/Max -- allows the user more control over the search.

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